Stanisław Barańczak has died. He was 68. Although he had been ill, suffering from Parkinson’s since the mid-1990s, the news has been devastating. Indeed, Barańczak’s death is a loss not just to Polish letters but also to world literature. His copious output of poetry, essays, and translations from various eras and at least four languages, including most of Wisława Szymborska we have in English and nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays in Polish, testifies that he was that rare gem, a man of letters capable of shaping the literary conversation in multiple genres and languages. From his beginnings as a poet and incisive critic who challenged the Communist tastemakers and several generations, including his own, of Polish poets and writers to speak the truth, to the Harvard professor, dissident, and prodigious translator who enlightened scores of Western readers and scholars in the politics and literatures of the Other Europe, Barańczak was a model of an engaged writer and intellectual. For those of us with less talent and purpose, his legendary work ethic should be an inspiration in and of itself.
I remember the first time I went looking for his poetry. This would have been in
the late ‘90s. I was an undergraduate at the University of the Pacific then, just starting
to write my very first, awkward poems. This was before the Internet and cheap airmail,
which meant that I read Polish poets in English. Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert,
Wisława Szymborska—check, check, check. Reading Adam Zagajewski led me to other
so-called New Wave poets—those who came of age in Poland during the late ‘60s.
Fortunately, and nothing short of fantastic, Pacific’s library owned a copy of Barańczak’s
The Weight of the Body: Selected Poems (1989). I made my way to the stacks, pulled the book off the shelf, and started devouring the poems immediately. Given the context—
this was Solidarity’s heyday—the political overtones, including a teargas container
tossed back and forth across the Atlantic, featured prominently in the collection, but I
also discovered a poetry that was multi-layered, dense in sound and sense. Every time I
open Barańczak’s Wiersze zebrane, his collected poems in Polish, now, I recall that day
in Stockton, feeling a sense of gratitude not only for his poetry, but also for influencing
scores of younger Polish poets, some of whom I have translated into English and count as
Santa Monica, California